When my grandmother was born in Philadelphia in 1920, women couldn’t vote. Her opinion about her country and the people who governed it mattered less — or, frankly, not at all — than the men around her.
Even after the ratification of the 19th Amendment on Aug. 20, 1920, my grandmother was still less of a person in the eyes of society and the law. When she married, she became the legal property of my grandfather and although they ran a business together (and by all accounts my grandmother called the shots), the business and all its profits were under my grandfather’s control too.
There was nothing particularly unusual about this, nothing especially sexist or backward about my grandfather. It was just the way things were.
For the first 270 years of our nation’s history, no major political party ever nominated a woman to be its candidate for president. This was, I suppose, not explicitly sexist or even backward. Sexism didn’t exist as a concept for most of that history; to suggest something is backward implies a contrast with more forward thinking in the future. But our thinking, at least as manifest in our voting habits, never changed. That was just the way things were.
Hillary Clinton is the first woman to win a major party’s nomination for president. Whatever your political leanings, whatever your gender, whatever your perspective on the merits of feminism, this moment is a big deal. There have only been 56 other presidential elections in all of American history and none of them have included a woman candidate leading a major ticket.
I want to celebrate it. Bask in it. Grin and hoot and holler. I don’t want to wrestle, at least not yet, with the ideological tensions and contentions that I, as a Bernie Sanders supporter, know bubble just beneath the surface. Nor do I want to heed the admonitions of the anti-Obama, anti-identity politics, anti-political correctness backlash Donald Trump is fomenting and exploiting around the country, admonitions designed to make us feel guilty for even acknowledging the glass ceiling. I don’t want to process my own unarguable residue of internalized anti-feminism that makes me afraid to “play the gender card.” I just want to grab the damn card and wave it proudly.
During the early moments of the Democratic primary, my 7-year-old daughter Willa declared that she wanted Hillary Clinton to win “because she’s a girl.”
“That’s not enough of a reason,” I almost said, but then caught myself. For 270 years, maleness and whiteness was an implicit prerequisite for president. Wanting to vote for a woman candidate isn’t sexist; it’s an act of undoing sexism. It’s a way to symbolically support the equality of women everywhere while substantively putting into office a candidate who personally understands the needs of half of the population who have heretofore not been represented in the White House. That’s not to say that voting for a woman is an implicitly feminist act (see Sarah Palin and Carly Fiorina), nor is it to suggest that not voting for a woman is an inherently, entirely sexist decision. But our democracy has always been inextricably entwined with race and gender. We only notice it when the candidate isn’t a white man.
Women make up more than 50 percent of the American population but just 20 percent of Congress — which, incidentally, is the highest percentage of women in Congress in history. Since the United States Senate was established in 1789, there have been just 46 women senators — 20 of whom are currently serving. There has been just one African American woman senator in the entire 227 years of the institution.
India elected a woman head of state. Liberia elected a woman head of state. So did Britain and Israel and Germany and South Korea and Indonesia. Our supposedly inclusive, equitable democracy has never managed to do what Bangladesh and Chile have done. Now, we finally have a chance.
On Tuesday evening, when it became clear that Clinton would be the Democratic presidential nominee, I looked at my daughter and my eyes filled with tears. She will grow up in a world that is still imperfect, still bending toward justice, but with markedly more opportunity and fairness than my grandmother ever knew. And my little girl, who once looked at the faces of the 44 presidents so far and asked why none are women, may now know not only that the world can change but that there can be a place for a girl like her at the top of it.
As I tucked her late in the evening, after a night of excitement, Willa threw her arms around my neck and whispered in my ear, “I’m going to dream about being president, too.” Suddenly that possibility isn’t just a dream anymore. That’s worth celebrating.